For the past several days, I’ve been on the road, driving highways and back streets of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Weeks before, with an invitation to an Alabama wedding, and a school year (and orals) finally behind me, I realized I had the perfect opportunity for a road trip. And being the impossibly hip grad student that I am, I also decided I’d be driving my dissertation.
Part of my research entails recovering the mid-eighteenth-century transportation and communication paths that cut across and radiated out from Ohio Valley. While I’ve studied maps, charts, letters, and travel accounts, I’d never traveled on or along those waterways, roads, or footpaths—even the well-known routes of Braddock’s and Forbes Roads.
So as best I could—over a few days, and with a good-natured classmate who, quite fairly, didn’t necessarily share all my enthusiasm for the mighty Ohio—I was going to drive part of it. A couple days out from the wedding I set out from New Haven and cut south towards Pennsylvania. From Harrisburg, I headed west, jumping on and off I-76 and route 30—part of what was once Forbes Road—through the trail junction of Bedford until I finally reached Pittsburgh. From there, I cut down through Pennsylvania into West Virginia, darting back and forth across the Monongahela and along the spine of hills, before heading west again, stumbling onto the Ohio in Huntington. The river and I parted ways one more time, until I reached Louisville and the falls. From there I headed south to Alabama, and now, a couple days later, I’m finally working my way back northeast again.
What is the importance of understanding the landscape of the dissertation? And even more, the physical movement across that landscape?
The spatial turn and resurgence of historical geography, bolstered by the ever-increasing popularity of communication (and consequently) transportation networks, offer some hopeful answers. I know that when it came time to dig into my project, I found myself still engrossed in Hulbert’s early twentieth-century ode to the Historic Highways of America, but also extremely excited by the very recent work—such as Jon Parmenter’s The Edge of the Woods and David Preston’s The Texture of Contact—which again brought space and physical paths back to the fore of the study of colonial frontiers. And recent methodological innovations in the discipline, beyond just the orbit of early American history, have been instrumental to conceptualizing my own work.
Driving these routes is certainly not the same thing as using GIS to map historical movement or studying imperial maps for their cultural and political subtext. But can the personal experience of tracing these geographies and pathways add anything to those methodologies?
It’s nothing new to see the site of your research and to walk the nearby streets or grounds. And I would echo those who have already (and convincingly) argued there’s something centrally important to understanding firsthand how historical actors experienced a place in all its constitutive elements. Yet I think we need to try and experience not only a place, but also the movement between places—to know just as intimately the roads and paths and rivers and lakes navigated and traversed to the heart of your research.
But what’s an early Americanist to do when they’re 250 years late to the game? What’s the benefit of traveling to these places, and near (or on, when I’m lucky) those historic paths? For one, I’m certainly nowhere near recreating the full experience—my Subaru is a good bit faster and thankfully more comfortable than the eighteenth-century alternatives. And those routes—and the landscapes along them—have changed dramatically over the past centuries. Worse still, many paths are gone or frustratingly hard to find. What I would do for something like those seemingly ubiquitous “Civil War Trails” signs.
I think the gain is partly intuitive—I want to understand, as best I can, what it feels like to head toward the Ohio from the Great Lakes above, and to approach the valley from across the breadth of Pennsylvania, and to snake my way towards Pittsburgh from a corner of Virginia. Even with the present-day limitations (or advantages), I think one can’t help but gain at least some better perspective on how traveling predecessors experienced such vastly different pathways. (And—particularly in the British case—I think it helps one understand why individuals and states were so intent on bettering the transportation links to the edges of empire).
However, is there something else to be gained? I think so, even if I’m still unsure what that is. I’d love to know whether others have tried something similar, and what their own experiences have been. What I do know is that at some point this fall I’ll be back on the roads, heading first from the southeast, trying to trace Braddock’s Road, the Kittanning Trail, and Washington’s 1753 journey, heading then along the upper Ohio, and finally driving north to Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and Lake Ontario. Then, as the weather cools—like those travelers, messengers, traders, and soldiers—I’ll hunker down. But perhaps a little more comfortably, with the radiant heat of the archives.